Joe “The Nose” Wilk remembers when there were no gloves, no weight classes and very few rules.
And Wilk has survived, despite the archaic beginnings of mixed martial arts.
“I got in really early and I think that’s kind of the secret to my success,” said Wilk, who owns and operates Combative Sports Center in Manhattan. “I was fighting back in 2000 and a lot of people hadn’t really heard of it then.”
Wilk was fighting before the sport adopted the more uniform name, mixed martial arts, it goes by today. When he started, it was called NHB or “No Holds Barred.”
“It was bare-fist fighting then,” he said. “It took a turn to a sport quickly — the mixed martial arts era — where it’s regulated — we’re sanctioned and legitimized now. Unsanctioned fights are good way to get people hurt and set our sport back. We’ve come from the stone ages in this sport.”
And Wilk has been there every step of the way, compiling a 17-8 record as a professional fighter — another 10 fights as an amateur — in the 155-pound, or lightweight, class.
But Wilk — now 31 — is more than a fighter. As the owner of CSC, Wilk is the lead trainer for a handful of other professional MMA fighters who call Manhattan home. He’s also a certified hand-to-hand combat instructor for the U.S. Military — something that’s a bit unprecedented today for a civilian who has never served in the military.
Wilk moved to Manhattan, in fact, to train the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley. But his love for MMA started before that when he was a journalism major at Butler County Community College.
He says he was “sucked out of that” with his curiosity in becoming a fighter. It was a gamble at first, which is why he gave himself until he was 25 to see what he could accomplish.
“This is a young man’s sport,” he said. “I figured I could always go back to school. But fighting, you need your youth to do something like this.”
By the time Wilk was 25, he was an amateur world champion, running his own gym and teaching soldiers how to fight on the battlefield.
“Then I decided I would give it until I was 30,” he said. “Once I turned 30, I was still doing good, heading in the right direction, so I figured I’d give it until I was 35. How long will I keep doing this? I don’t know. I’ll let everyone know on my 35th birthday.”
But as successful as Wilk has been in the octagon, he’s been equally has successful, or more so, behind the scenes as a mentor, trainer and coach for younger fighters — including rising star Jake Lindsey, who has been scouted by the UFC — the sport’s highest level of MMA.
More than 100 people workout at Wilk’s gym — located at 2601 Anderson Avenue — whether it’s training in Thai boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, mixed martial arts or self-defense classes. Of that group, 20 or so are active fighters, including a competition team and five current professional fighters.
“We don’t stress on the business side of things as much as we probably should,” Wilk said. “We just want to train fighters and push people toward success. I always joke around that we run a martial arts school and home for wayward children. We like to take on the special kids, who aren’t doing the right thing and have talent for this, scoop them up from their bad situations, help them find jobs and a good social situation.
“We are not angels, by any means — you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff these kids are up to. We don’t owe anything to those kids, but we owe a lot to this sport because a lot of us have similar stories. This is what snatched me up and got me on the right path.”
But getting the gym off the ground wasn’t always easy. Wilk first opened his gym at its current location, renting out space from the Optimist kids wrestling club. Eventually, the gym moved to another location in a small basement space on the east side of town. But with significant debt from starting the business, Wilk was on the hustle to get more bodies on the mats.
“We had to take out a substantial loan just to start our own place,” Wilk said. “We went from 10 or 11 guys to start out with, and we needed more to keep this thing going.”
It didn’t take long, though, as his numbers grew, so did the need for more space again. It was perfect timing because the kids wrestling club space had come available. So, Wilk moved his gym back to where it all started, nearly two years ago.
“It seems like overnight we were up to 70 guys,” he said. “So, at that point, we kind of backed off spending so much of our time on the business side of stuff because the bills were paid now. I have a job and I fight, I don’t need income from this gym. What I need are people on the mats, training and getting everybody better.”
It’s that passion for helping others that Gregg Van De Creek says sets Wilk apart from other trainers in this sport, so much so that he might even sacrifice some of his own training for the sake of others.
“He always puts other people before himself and helps the people out who want to be here,” said Van De Creek, a local firefighter and professional fighter who trains at CSC. “You have to be selfish, a little greedy with your time as a pro fighter, especially during training and he’s not good doing at that. It hasn’t hurt him much, but it’s definitely stretching out his career — everyone here is better for it though. If we do well, we win for him, but if we lose, he says it’s his fault, not ours. He’s that kind of guy. He wants to see us do well.”
Between training others, running the gym and training soldiers, Wilk still manages to get in his fights — four already scheduled before the end of the year — but Van De Creek says it’s a struggle sometimes for Wilk to find time for proper training.
“I would like to see him do more because he has all the potential in the world,” said the 28-year-old Van De Creek, who fights at heavyweight. “He could make it to the UFC someday. I’d like to see him go away for two months and have somebody coach him because its hard to coach yourself, keep track of all the guys, work in their corners and deal with fight promoters for all of us.”
But perhaps Wilk’s biggest responsibility at CSC is to be an ambassador for a sport that is often misunderstood, especially during the early years when he first started.
“It’s just like anything else, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” Wilk said. “People on the outside looking in, typically will see in here a lot of young guys with a bunch of tattoos beating each other up, but we’re the same guys who will pull over and fix a flat tire on your car if we see you on the highway.
“The perception is hard to get over sometimes, but the people who don’t get it, don’t deserve to get it. You can’t keep everybody happy all the time. We just keep doing what we’re doing and try to do the right thing.”
It can be a unique crop of people on any given night at CSC and Wilk wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have 16-year-old kids and guys in their 50s here training every night — 16-year-old boys choking out army soldiers, women beating up cops, everything,” he said. “If we weren’t a good place to train, we wouldn’t have high-ranking local police officers and army soldiers in here everyday.”
“This might be the only place you’ll find cops and felons in the same room smiling and laughing and helping each other out,” Van De Creek said. “That’s really cool.”